According to I.H. Marshall, the Last Supper was a Passover meal, probably held one day before the official date. But what significance did Jesus intend by it?
1. The Passover Meal
There is every evidence from the Gospels that Jesus regarded this Passover meal as particularly important, and that he made careful arrangements to celebrate it undisturbed.
The Passover was a celebration of how God had brought the Israelites out of Egypt and set them on their way to the Promised Land. The original Passover sacrifice had redemptive significance. The annual commemorative feast also entailed the offering of sacrifice, and, indeed, was the only sacrifice in which the worshiper was himself involved in the slaying of an animal.
A further aspect of the Passover celebration was that it took place in the family setting.
The Passover became an occasion for looking forward to the future redemption of Israel at the coming of the Messiah. Indeed, it was thought that the Messiah would come on the night of the Passover. Jesus expressed this forward-looking aspect when he spoke of not eating the Passover again ‘until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God’, Lk 22:16, cf Lk 22:28; Mk 14:25. The allusion here may be the the Messianic banquet, Lk 14:15; cf Lk 13:28f; Rev 19:9. We may see an anticipation of this in the Lord’s Supper (cf. Rev 3:20).
So the Last Supper links, as did the Passover itself, God’s work of redemption with its final consummation.
2. The Farewell Meal
It is clear that Jesus regarded the Last Supper as taking place under the shadow of his imminent departure from his disciples. We need to understand this in the light of his total earthly ministry, with all the hopes that had been entertained by his followers (Lk 24:19,21). He now shares this meal with them, and teaches them (see especially John’s account). It was the culmination of many previous occasions when Jesus shared meals with his disciples and taught them.
3. The Actions of Jesus
In accordance with Jewish practice, the host, took bread, gave thanks, then broke off a piece for each of the gests and gave it to them. At the end of the meal he took a cup of wine, gave thanks, and each drank (whether from the same cup or not is uncertain). In Jesus’ case, it is clear that Jesus shared his own cup with the disciples, instead of letting each drink from his own cup. Moreover, he accompanied the distribution with interpretative words of his own.
We should see in Jesus’ distribution of the bread and wine as a symbol of a gift to his disciples. It is a gift not only offered, but received: they are to eat the bread and drink the wine. We should also see in the distribution of the bread and wine a symbol of the future messianic banquet, and also as a symbol of the meaning and significance of his death.
4. The Significance of the Bread
The novel feature here is the comment of Jesus: “This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In Mark’s version, the word “take” is included, confirming that Jesus is offering his disciples a gift.
‘This is my body’ (the word ‘is’ would have been missing from a Hebrew or Aramaic original) can only mean, in the context, “This signifies my body”. After all, Jesus was present in body at the time, holding the bread in his hand: his body and the bread were obviously two different and separate things. Moreover, he had done nothing – not even bless it or consecrate it – at that time; he had simply given thanks for it. It is like a person pointing to himself in a photograph and saying, “This is me”.
Are we to think of the bread as representing Jesus as the source of spiritual nourishment? This reflects a truth that is taught in John 6, but it probably not the truth that is taught in the Last Supper narratives. The phrase, “which is given for you” probably refers to Jesus’ imminent and vicariously sacrificial death. Whether we should see this more precisely in terms of the sacrifice of Passover lamb, say, or perhaps the death of the Suffering Servant of Isa 53, is uncertain.
The command to “Do this” most obviously refers to the breaking and sharing of the bread as a commemoration of Jesus and his death, making him and his achievement real for all generations.
5. The Significance of the Cup
In the accounts of Mark and Luke, Jesus refers to his blood “which is shed for you/many”. This parallels the bread-saying. ‘Jesus is thinking of his death as that of the suffering Servant on behlaf of mankind.’
But why the reference to the contents of the cup as ‘blood’? This has definite connotations of death and sacrifice. Blood speaks of death – violent death. Blood also speaks of sacrifice, for it was the blood of a sacrifical animal which made atonement in the Old Testament system.
Jesus speaks of “the new covenant in my blood”. This recollects Ex 24:8, where the covenant in the wilderness was instituted with a sacrifice, and Moses said, “Behold the blood of the covenant which the Lord has made with you.” It also recalls Jer 31:31-34, which refers (without mentioning blood) to the new covenant which God would make with his people. We may conclude, then, that
Jesus here interprets his own death as a substitutionary sacrifice for the sins of the people that they may become partakers in the new covenant.
The idea of ‘covenant’ is, of course, fundamental to the thought of the Old Testament. When Israel failed to keep its covenant obligations, the Lord promised through Jeremiah that he would would make a new covenant with them in which he would write his laws on their hearts, in which their sins would be forgiven, and through which they would all love and serve God. We are to understand this as now fulfilled in the redemptive sacrifice of Jesus.
Based on Marshall, Last Supper and Lord’s Supper, 76-93